It’s the year 2005, and my fifteen-year old self is desperately trying to understand what this “being gay” thing is about. I frequent a number of gay culture sites. Most of them have columns rounding up new “LGBT books”. Most of them, tellingly, live in a special section of the bookstore or library. Most of them are also not things I’d usually pick up—until then, I’d mostly only been interested in sci-fi.
But that’s okay, I figure; I’ll read them anyways. I can read anything. Theoretically. And, I’m gay, so that means I’ll get something out of it. Right?
I find myself unable to finish a single novel in the “LGBT section” of the library or bookstore until I’m in my early twenties and reading them for a class on queer cultural production (actual part of the course title). Conversely, I’m able to put up with a lot of Heteronormative Nonsense for other things that I enjoy—I trace my time in fandom via the shows I was in the fandom for: Andromeda, Mutant X, X-Men.
For a long time, I felt a little weird about my inability to finish those books that were supposedly right up my alley. For one, the reviews made them sound so interesting and important (like all good reviews), and I wanted to see them through that lens. And two, why didn’t I connect with those books the way I thought I would?
It took me a long time to realize that, no matter how excited a reviewer might be about a book, or how valuable the insights in them were, it wouldn’t work to try to engage in a cover-to-cover read the way I did my favorite books. Certain genres just didn’t appeal to me. Trying to make myself respond to them the way I did to, say, science fiction, or high fantasy, wasn’t going to fly. The solution was more stories and better representation, but at the time, “someday” didn’t seem like enough. And, not knowing very much about why I liked the stories I did, I had a difficult time imagining what it was I was missing, or why I didn’t connect with the stories available. I just knew that I didn’t.
The “LGBT section” of the bookstore was a mixed blessing. On the one hand, it meant that genre stories that centered queer experiences were sectioned off from the genres that they belonged to—dismissed as not relatable or “universal” enough for the general (straight) population, categorized as “special interest”. It also made it painfully obvious just how few books there were.
In a lot of ways, though, this confusion of genres mirrored the online environment where I was searching for them. Because these books shared this common thread, there was a whole group of people who were eager to hear about them, and eager to share them, and they all came to the same few places to talk about them. And because I came into those spaces leading with my teenage identity crisis, I looked at a lot of things I wouldn’t normally have touched.
A lot of it, I bounced off of. But even if I did, I still usually read a review of it. If there were recaps of a show, I read those, too, even if I didn’t (or couldn’t) watch it. By the time I graduated high school, I’d been exposed to ideas about genre convention and its role in telling queer stories. I’d gotten to see those stories through the eyes of people who loved them and what they got out of them.
Later on, when I took queer studies classes, especially ones focusing on queer cultural production, the connections were made more explicit. Not only did genre play a role, but those genres were in turn informed by cultural context, historical events, and other landmark queer stories—by everything that had come before them, and everything happening around them.
It finally started to click: I just like trashy genre stuff. And that wasn’t the same as the volumes of gay erotica that took up half the LGBT section in the bookstore, or YA lit about coming out and getting a girlfriend, or the spec fic that was (rightly) categorized as science fiction. I wanted trashy, leather-wearing, knife-wielding, paranormal urban fantasy. That was all. It just didn’t exist then.
Understanding that was the key to me being able to step back and appreciate “queer literature” as the messy, genre-crossing blob it is. It allowed me to engage with the texts I read in my queer studies courses, which allowed me to understand why I couldn’t find what I was looking for. It positioned me to appreciate, say, RENT, for its references to gentrification, AIDS, and its understanding of found family. And to realize just how profoundly those ideas of found family are interwoven into queer culture and queer stories—regardless of the lack of werewolves (I kid… mostly). And in the end, as I kept looking, it gave me context for my experiences and identity, and ultimately, a language to express them in.
Fast forward to today. Over the last several years, a new generation of fans have noticed that the same queer fans tend to follow each other to the same queer shows. They’ve taken to calling themselves the “Gay Migration”—there’s several charts out there of the fandoms they’ve been through floating around, if you’re interested. It’s a list that would’ve made my teenage self absolutely gleeful, because there was nothing like it at the time.
There is a core hunger that Gay Migration fandom claims to satisfy, a lot like the massive variety of online resources I consumed as a queer teen. It makes sense to me that very often, the participants seem to be younger: the need for context, for validation, to tell us how to be what we are. It is, in fact, a core function of stories, depending on who you ask. These are the stories, the Gay Migration says. These are your stories.
Grand goals aside, though, putting on your sci-fi goggles for a show like The Bold Type is going to be a frustrating exercise. It’s a familiar problem to me. And this seems to be the very thing this section of femslash fandom—and therefore, it feels like, every section of femslash fandom—is struggling with.
Because just like I did as a teenager, unintentionally or not, it assumes a commonality between different people that may or may not exist based on an identity they share. That when I read, I read for the same things you do, that I find the same styles engaging, and that, most importantly, I would find different formats and genres satisfying the same way you do. That I need the same things out of a story that all other gay people need.
Gay Migration fandom moves along lines of identity; that is, it comes to a show because someone said, “There’s lesbians here.” It regularly jumps across genre lines to do so, and very often, if it shows up in the middle of a show’s run, it does not bother to familiarize itself with previous seasons, core messages, pre-existing dynamics—in short, what makes that show tick. The pairing is all. As is the desired outcome: Some variant of “gets married and rides off into the sunset.” Which, we could all probably stand to see more of.
However, given that ends-based approach, it makes sense that some frustrations around how queer stories are handled in that segment of fandom can be traced back to a fundamental misunderstanding—or total lack of understanding—about how different genres work. Their expectations are calibrated not by their sense of how a particular type of show might behave, or the kinds of topics they can expect it to address, or even if romantic relationships will be very important at all. Instead, their expectations are calibrated by their own regularly evolving idea of what gay stories are or should be, down to specific character beats and archetypes—which are often a function of a show’s genre, and not the disrespect of the writing staff. This in turn is shaped by experiences in previous fandoms, and heavily influenced by internal fanwank, negative interactions with production and writing staff on other shows, and other concurrent online arguments about gay culture and identity.
In short, their expectations of the show are influenced by everything but the individual show itself.
I want to return to the “LGBT” section of the bookstore for a moment. One of the things I remember keenly from my AfterEllen days is the struggle of authors of LGBT stories to not have their stories treated as “special interest.” Meaning, because it centered queer people and their experiences, it would be dismissed as not relatable or “universal” enough for the general (straight) population, and instead of ending up in, say, the sci-fi section, it would end up in the LGBT section.
The construction of the “human experience” using terms like “relatable” or “universal” excludes the experiences of queer people, women, people of color, anyone not English-speaking, and any stories that aren’t Euro-centric by constructing them as special interests. And if you look at who is represented in them, it becomes clear very quickly who is simply “human,” without modifiers, without needing to justify its existence on the shelves.
The Gay Migration’s potential downside lies along the same axis, although its point of origin is the LGBT section rather than the Sci-fi section. It assumes that because there are gay characters, those stories will (or should) all be told the same way, include the same elements, and use the same storytelling devices to do so, regardless of genre conventions or how the show has established that it tells stories. It assumes it speaks for a certain universality in the stories it latches onto; not a “universal human experience,” but a universal gay experience. In turn, it fails to recognize when the story serves the personal preferences of the big name fans involved instead of actually representing any real breadth of gay identity or narrative presence.
And that is the ultimate problem that I ran into, then and now: That the “LGBT” made it all functionally the same. Because on one hand, by the logic of the publishing industry gatekeepers, only queers care about queers in literature. And on the other, from queer people struggling for context and validation, the idea exists that queer people only really need one story, and the rest is fluff or garbage.
But we don’t need just one story. We need all of our stories. We are not monolithic in our experiences of our identity, and we are not monolithic in the stories we need.
And ultimately, the best way to negotiate that is to understand and maintain a language that allows us to express and define what we’re looking for, what we get out of our stories. Genre is one of those languages. Tagging is another. It can’t become a zero-sum game where we fight each other for the little space we have.
Ironically, the increase in stories about queer people is part of what’s made this surge in femslash’s popularity possible. Let’s not lose sight of the fact that there are a lot of ways to tell our stories, and we need all of them.